New Life

By Karen McIntyre, Senior Editor | March 26, 2014

Nonwovens manufacturers keep trash out of landfills by using recycled material.

In an effort to cut costs and create greener products, many nonwovens manufacturers and converters are relying on the use of recycled material—both post industrial and post consumer—to give new life to old items. While challenges certainly exist when it comes to recycled materials—cleanliness, sourcing, stability—using them creates a wonderful opportunity to reduce landfill waste and save energy.

According to the National Association for Container Resources, recycling polyester reduces energy consumption by 84% and greenhouse emissions by 71%. Recycling 1.5 billion pounds of polyester containers results in 46 trillion BTUs of energy saved, enough to power 486,000 homes. In terms of end results, 85 16-ounce polyester bottles will produce the fill for one sleeping bag, five two-liter bottles will produce a 72-count box of wipes. Five 16-ounce bottles can make the acquisition distribution layer material for one 72-count box of diapers.

“The challenges of using recycled materials depend on the technical requirements,” says Gerhard Schöpping, director global innovation and technology, Freudenberg. “The main drivers are cost reduction and sustainability. Some customers see the benefit of incorporating recycled fiber to make green products.”

Freudenberg Nonwovens, the world’s largest producer of nonwovens, is using recycled materials in almost every market in which it participates. These range from automotives to geotextiles to interlinings, and the company credits itself for saving hundreds of millions of plastic bottles from entering landfills.

Freudenberg sources recycled materials in a number of ways. “In some instances we buy recycled PET staple fiber directly from our fiber suppliers, while in other cases the company is using post industrial recycling material from our own process waste or from the market,” says Schöpping. “It actually can be difficult to get the right amount and sufficient quality.”

In recent years, Schöpping says Freudenberg Nonwovens has invested in recycling lines and is continuously investing to further develop this business. “We want to increase the amount of product lines originating out of recycled material as well as increase the amount of recycled material used within already existing products,” he says.

Within Freudenberg’s spunlaid division, the company offers Lutradur ECO, polyester nonwoven fabric made from 100% post consumer recycled plastic and executives report that demand for the product has given the division a significant boost in recent years.

“Lutradur ECO will grow due to the increasing demand for green products,” says Schöpping. “Sustainability is becoming more and more important in the construction industry and green products are necessary to meet qualification of industrial standards.” 

Development of Lutradur ECO has evolved during the past 10 years as Freudenberg has sought ways to help its construction, landscape and filtration customers achieve coveted LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) credits for their use of sustainable products. Material and manufacturing engineers pushed to increase the amount of post-industrial recycled (PIR) material from 15-90%. When the company migrated to 100% PCR, Lutradur ECO was born.

At IDEA 2013, Freudenberg introduced Lutradur ECO made with Repreve PET Resin. Repreve is a brand made with recycled materials and unlike other recycled ingredients Repreve is made with the highest quality standards in the industry. Lutradur ECO is suitable for many applications including wall covering substrates, carpet backing, landscape and geotextiles, green roof systems, building and construction, coating and printing substrates and many other end uses.

Freudenberg’s usage of recycled materials will surely be enhanced with a new investment in Kaiserlsauthern, Germany, which allows excess materials, rejected during production, to be reused down to the last fiber. In the new unit, material from production is melted, cooled and chopped into small pieces to form granulate. The chips are returned during the manufacturing process and used to make nonwovens.

A Win-Win

Across all of its companies, Freudenberg’s focus on recyclable innovations has led to the company adding a number of jobs to its nonwovens business. Additionally, the company’s innovations including everything from mattresses and wallpaper to brooms and automotive interiors are keeping 377 million plastic bottles out of landfills each year and, from a business standpoint, have led to new contracts and increased business, allowing Freudenberg’s Nonwovens, Vitech, Texbond, Filtration and Household Product companies to add jobs.

In addition to Freudenberg Nonwovens, Freudenberg Vitech is an industry leader in the production of nonwoven automotive fabric made from 100% post consumer recycled material. It manufactures fabric in its Hopkinsville, KY facility for automotive headliners, sun visors, seat backs and packaging trays using fabric made from 100% post-consumer PET bottle scrap.

Additionally, Freudenberg Texbond, based in Macon, GA, recycles more than one million plastic drink bottles a day during the production of its nonwoven roofing membrane and building materials. Its products address soundproofing, waterproofing and thermal insulation challenges for the construction industry while helping customers meet green purchasing initiatives.

Texbond processes the plastic from bottles into polyester fibers, which are further processed into fabric. Also, Freudenberg Filtration Technologies uses 100% post consumer recycled plastic to create the material used in its high-quality commercial and industrial Viledon air and liquid filtration systems.

Freudenberg’s commitment to being green can also be seen through its efforts to achieve zero landfill status at as many of its global plants as possible since 2004.

Other nonwovens-related companies that have gone zero landfill in recent years are DuPont Tyvek, NicePak/PDI and Rockline at its Arkansas plant. Procter & Gamble announced in April it was zero landfill at 45 of its global sites and only 1% of its output enters waste stream.

“We have a vision for the future, where plants are powered by renewable energy, products are made from recycled and renewable materials and resources are conserved, with no waste going to landfill,” said former CEO Bob MacDonald at the time of the announcement.

Running Green

Efforts from nonwovens producers like Freudenberg have trickled down into the end user categories as well. Within the geotextiles market Tencate Mirafi offers a recycled nonwoven geotextile product for site drainage. MiraGreen D recycled nonwoven geotextiles contribute toward earning credits for three key categories in LEED-NC: Sustainable Sites, Materials & Resources and Innovation and Design Products. The materials are comprised of 30% recycled content in lieu of virgin resin raw materials and provide the same quality as standard 100% polypropylene or polyester virgin resin based geotexitles, according to the company.

Also finding a second life for products are wipes manufacturers. Rockline Industries makes a regenerated cotton wipe made from post-industrial waste from the manufacturing of T-shirts. The product was originally developed as a private label product and has been awarded for innovation.

And, Kimberly-Clark announced a few years ago it had added 40% post consumer recycled materials to its Wypall products.

Fiber Focus

Phoenix Bonded Logics, and its sister company Phoenix Fibers, has been keeping textiles out of landfills for a generation. Phoenix, a company started a few years ago, is a textile recycler and turns pre- and post-consumer textile material into regenerated cotton. The cotton is used by Bonded Logics and its external customers to produce nonwovens and other materials.

According to Sean Desmond, director of sales and marketing, the bulk of Bonded Logics’ nonwoven materials are used in insulation for the construction industry.

“We really don’t use any virgin material,” he says. “Everything we use is either pre-consumer or post-consumer fiber.

“When the company started making recycled insulation 11 years ago, the green conversation wasn’t a major topic around the nation but the business model made great economic sense,” Desmond continues. “Since then, the green tide has turned.”

In recent years, Bonded Logics’ Ultratouch denim insulation, an insulation product that is made from recycled denim, has emerged as one of its largest products. “When we first introduced it 11 years ago, people thought we were crazy. Fast forward to now and we are selling it in retailers nationwide,” Desmond says.

To help it source denim—and help others—Bonded Logics has partnered with Cotton Incorporated in a program known as “Cotton. From Blue to Green.” This initiative encourages people to donate used jeans, which Bonded Logics turns into UltraTouch to be used by Habitat for Humanity affiliates.

Beyond insulation products, Bonded Logics has diversified into mattresses and other bedding components as well as acoustical products and is seeking additional growth opportunities as foam replacement materials.

“We are constantly getting into new areas and we are always looking for new industries,” Desmond says.

Leigh Fibers has made an entire business out of sourcing recycled fibers and selling it into new markets including automotives, sound insulation and carpet padding.

In fact, Leigh executives say the reduction of textile waste in the U.S. is largely indebted to the nonwovens industry as textile manufacturers not only try to keep their landfill outputs low but also try to make money anywhere, and any way, they can.

While Leigh does sell a little prime polyester, its main business is taking textile waste of any sort—rags, cuttings, carpets or anything they can get their hands on—and bringing it back to fiber form. And, about 90% of its customers’ business is in the nonwovens padding market, making products that go under floor carpets and in automotives to name a couple applications.

Calling his company the largest textile waste recycler in the country, president Paul Lehner says there isn’t a fiber type his company does not deal with. Their suppliers, many of which dot the I-40 corridor in North Carolina, are both woven and nonwoven producers and converters for the furniture industry and other durable markets. Instead of putting their scraps in the dumpster, they sell them to companies like Leigh Fibers.

“It has gotten to the point where companies are putting next to nothing in the dumpster,” says Lehner. “They call it ‘valuable waste.’ No one likes to use the word trash.”

The bulk of the fibers Leigh recycles go into durable markets like furniture and automotives, according to Lehner. “Diaper manufacturers, generally speaking, are not using the recycled materials because it is difficult to get it clean, or uniform, for them to make consistent products,” he says. “Maybe we will see this develop more down the road as prime fiber prices continue to be erratic.”

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